Beauty as the Symbol for Morality: Moral Feeling in Kant’s Aesthetic Judgment and Practical Reason

In her Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, Arendt argues that “judgment of the particular–This is beautiful, This is ugly; this is right, this is wrong–has no place in Kant’s moral philosophy” (Arendt 15). Here, Arendt distinguishes between the projects of Kant’s third, aesthetic, Critique of Judgment and his second, moral, Critique of Practical Reason, respectively. “Judgment is not practical reason,” she writes; “practical reason ‘reasons’ and tells me what to do and what not to do; it lays down the law and is identical with the will, and the will utters commands; it speaks in imperatives. Judgment, on the contrary, arises from ‘a merely contemplative pleasure or inactive delight'” (Arendt 15). Though this distinction certainly appears justified, as Kant clearly wishes to treat the two distinct aspects separately, the absolute claim that aesthetic judgment “has no place in Kant’s moral philosophy” is perhaps a bit too strong. Kant himself chooses to end the “Critique of Aesthetic Judgment,” Part I of the third Critique, with the at least problematic claim, “Taste makes, as it were, the transition from the charm of sense to habitual moral interest possible without too violent a leap, for it represents the imagination, even in its freedom, as amenable to a final determination for understanding, and teaches us to find, even in sensuous objects, a free delight apart from any charm of sense” (CJ 354). The aesthetic may provide a transition to the moral, so we can say at the very least that the moral does have some place in judgment of the particular, serving a representative or symbolic function within our faculty of taste.

But what precisely is this symbolic relationship of the moral to the aesthetic? Can we, against Arendt, make the reverse claim, namely, that judgment of the particular does have some place in Kant’s moral philosophy? Arendt provides us with a clue into the Critique of Judgment by noting that the book was originally announced “under the title Critique of Moral Taste” and that when Kant finally began the third Critique, “he still called it, to begin with, the Critique of Taste” (Arendt 10). However, in this transition Arendt argues that

two things happened: behind taste . . . Kant had discovered an entirely new human faculty, namely, judgment; but, at the same time, he withdrew moral propositions from the competence of this new faculty. In other words: it is now more than taste that will decide about the beautiful and the ugly; but the question of right and wrong is to be decided by neither taste nor judgment but by reason alone (Arendt 10).

This much seems evident. Kant does not, in the Critique of Judgment, speak of moral propositions as determined by the human faculty of judgment or taste. Still, Kant clearly has morality in mind in the third Critique. The division between aesthetics and morality remains too rigid when we consider the weight of Kant’s conclusion, that “the moral judgment not alone admits of definite constitutive principles, but is only possible by adopting these principles [of aesthetic judgment] and their universality as the ground of its maxims” (CJ 354, emphasis in original). In this paper, I intend to show how Kant requires “beauty as the symbol for morality” to establish subjective universal validity in aesthetic judgments, thus linking the two not as identical but as “akin” in their moral feeling and giving each their sense of duty and ground.

To this end, I will first outline the major differences between moral reasoning and aesthetic judgment. This will involve a brief exposition of Kant’s moral project in the Critique of Practical Reason and elsewhere, followed by an summary of his aesthetic position in the Critique of Judgment. Here, the differences between the two projects will be made quite clear, revolving around the law and concept-driven notion of moral action and the essentially different reflective method involved in a proper judgment of taste. These important distinctions having been made, I will directly pose the problem raised by Kant’s curious association of the two different projects, in some claims stronger than in others. Key points in this discussion will be those of interest, universal communicability, the sensus communis, and duty. Next, putting a finer point on this association, I will emphasize “beauty,” as Kant describes it, “as the symbol for morality.” I will argue that this relationship must be understood symbolically and not identically, showing the problems which are unavoidable when the two are identified as essentially the same or as working from the same foundation. This argument will take two forms, the first showing the inadequacies of treating aesthetics as legislative, and therefore moral, as is articulated by Crawford. The second will treat the opposite mistake, in Johnson’s argument, which treats morality as necessarily founded on the aesthetic faculty of imagination. Finally, I will show precisely how beauty is indeed the “symbol” for morality, serving a representative function through a similar “moral feeling” which justifies the demand for universal assent in the both the second and third Critiques, without equating aesthetics with morality as the same project.

Let us begin with Arendt’s justified distinction between practical reason and aesthetic judgment, where, as we have seen, the former “lays down the law,” “is identical with the will” and “speaks in imperatives,” while the latter arises from a “merely contemplative pleasure or inactive delight” in the beautiful. Practical reason makes us legislative beings whose reason and free will is everywhere ultimately bound by our duty to law. “For, pure reason,” Kant insists, “practical of itself, is here immediately lawgiving,” and the will, as “pure will,” is “determined by the mere form of law, and this determining ground is regarded as the supreme condition of all maxims” (CPR 31, emphasis in original). Thus, with regard to such maxims in the sphere of morality, we find Kant’s famous “single categorical imperative,” ventured many times and in similar ways, but described effectively enough in the Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals as such: “Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” (GMM 421). Here, we see that moral reasoning involves both subsuming a particular experience or instance under a general law and establishing a universal law based on the maxim which describes a particular action.

The categorical imperative and the legislative morality of practical reason necessarily creates a universal communicability and, importantly, a sense of duty. “Duty,” Kant describes in the Groundwork as “the necessity to act out of reverence for the law” (GMM 400). Duty thus creates a compulsion of the will to act in accordance with the law as it is laid down by practical reason through the categorical imperative. In his essay on Theory and Practice, Kant specifies that “in itself, duty is nothing more than a limitation of the will within a universal legislation which was made possible by an initially accepted maxim” (TP 65-66). Here, the will must obey the law of reason and thus be in accord with itself by universalizing the maxim of its action. Kant insists that “if we stand in a moral relationship to things in the world around us, we must everywhere obey the moral law; and to this is added the further duty of working with all our power to ensure that the state of affairs described (i.e. a world conforming to the highest moral ends) will actually exist” (TP 65, footnote). Later, we will see how this passage effectively describes the necessity of interest in the good, but first we must take a look at aesthetic judgment in relation to morality, preparing us for the important differences between the two in their focus on interest.

Aesthetic judgment, in contrast with moral reasoning, involves neither the creation of a law nor any application of such a law in the act of judging. Again, Arendt is correct in her observation that the first part of Kant’s Critique of Judgment deals with aesthetic judgment of particular objects, “such as an object that we call ‘beautiful’ without being able to subsume it under a general category of Beauty as such; we have no rule that can be applied” (Arendt 13). Hence, Arendt’s reference to Kant’s own description of judgment as arising from a “merely contemplative pleasure or inactive delight.” However, such a lack of rule does not therefore reduce the faculty of aesthetic judgment simply to agreeableness or disagreeableness, for such a “pleasure of enjoyment” has nothing to do with what Kant means by “contemplative pleasure” or “inactive delight.” Rather, Kant insists that the “pleasure of the beautiful is, on the other hand, neither a pleasure of enjoyment nor an activity according to law, nor yet one of rationalizing contemplation according to ideas, but rather one of mere reflection” (CJ 292). Of course, Kant’s use of the expression “mere reflection” could not be understood as articulating a radically subjectivist or ultimately solipsistic standpoint, but must be understood in terms of his notion of the “subjective universality” of aesthetic judgments within his complete system in the third Critique, which we must first explain briefly.

“The judgment of taste,” Kant begins the Critique of Judgment, “is not a cognitive judgment, and so not logical, but is aesthetic–which means that it is one whose determining ground cannot be other than subjective” (CJ 203, emphasis in original). Judgment of the beautiful does not proceed logically from determinate concepts. For instance, using Kant’s example, when we make the statement, “this rose is beautiful,” the judgment does not follow logically from a category of “the beautiful” within which “rose” is grouped; i.e.: “Roses in general are beautiful; this is a rose; therefore, this rose is beautiful.” Such a judgment would indeed be a logical judgment founded on an aesthetic judgment, but could no longer be understood as a purely aesthetic judgment. Rather, a purely aesthetic judgment results not from a comparison of many singular representations, nor from a universal concept of the beautiful, but arises merely from this particular object which I find beautiful. Thus, its determining ground is wholly subjective. However, a properly aesthetic judgment cannot remain wholly subjective, but must be universalized in order for “beauty” to be intelligible as a concept.

Within the merely agreeable found in the pleasure of enjoyment, we may retain the wholly subjective axiom, “Every one has his own taste (that of sense)” (CJ 212). In such sensual matters, such as the enjoyment of canary wine, nothing more can be said, and arguing over such private feelings would be ridiculous. But a judgment concerning the beautiful, which is not based on an inclination or interest of the Subject in the object, is considered “free in respect of the liking which he accords to the object,” as the Subject “can find as reason for his delight no personal conditions to which his own subjective self might alone be party” (CJ 211). Appealing to the sensus communis, that is, the faculty of estimating beautiful objects in every other person, the Subject “judges not merely for himself, but for all men, and then speaks of beauty as if it were a property of things. Thus he says that the thing is beautiful” (CJ 212). In this way, apart from any interest yet grounded in subjectivity, an aesthetic judgment establishes a subjective universal validity, as the Subject demands a similar delight in the beautiful object from every one.

In summarizing these points, Kant again distinguishes aesthetic judgments from the maxims of morality:

by the judgment of taste (upon the beautiful) the delight in an object is imputed to every one, yet without being founded on a concept (for then it would be the good), and that this claim to universality is such an essential factor of a judgment by which we describe anything as beautiful, that were it not for its being present to the mind it would never enter into any one’s head to use the expression, but everything that pleased without a concept would be ranked as agreeable (CJ 213-214).

The sensus communis appealed to in a judgment of taste does not postulate an actual agreement regarding a particular beautiful object, since, as we have seen, there can be “no rule according to which any one is to be compelled to recognize anything as beautiful” (CJ 215). Rather, the judgment “only imputes this agreement to every one, as an instance of the rule in respect of which it looks for confirmation, not from concepts, but from the concurrence of others” (CJ 216). Whereas a logically universal judgment, or similarly a moral judgment, gives reasons, subsumes particulars under general concepts, and demands actual agreement, the aesthetic judgment, lacking such determinate concepts, merely imputes this agreement. Thus, in contrast with moral reasoning, the aesthetic judgment, grounded wholly in subjectivity, gains subjective universal validity, not as a rule or a general, determinate concept to be applied universally to given particulars, but merely as a particular instance of beauty which demands universal agreement.

After going through such pains to distinguish the aesthetic from the moral, Kant surprisingly claims, in § 42 of the Critique of Judgment, that though he “willingly admit[s] that the interest in the beautiful of art . . . gives no evidence at all of a habit of mind attached to the morally good,” he does maintain that “to take an immediate interest in the beauty of nature (not merely to have taste in estimating it) is always a mark of a good soul” (CJ 298). How are we to understand this? Why does Kant’s deduction require a “transition on the part of our critical faculty from the enjoyment of sense to the moral feeling,” and how can such a transition be carried out? (CJ 297). Remembering the explicit requirement of disinterestedness in judgments concerning the beautiful, it is significant to note that it is, at least in part, an immediate interest in the beauty of nature which “is always the mark of a good soul.” Thus, as we shall now see, in Kant’s later focus on interest in relation to aesthetic judgments, we are given a hint into both the reason for Kant’s necessary transition from the aesthetic to the moral, and the means with which he makes such a transition.

Crawford points out that Kant requires the transition from the aesthetic to the moral at this point because he “explicitly recognizes the incompleteness of his argument as developed through Stage IV,” specifically in his understanding that “the full import of a judgment of taste is not justified simply by the deduction that the basis of the judgment is universally communicable” (Crawford 143). In other words, the mere appeal to the sensus communis, the universal communicability of a sensation or judgment due to the universal human capacity for such reflection, does not, in itself, satisfy the requirements for demanding agreement concerning aesthetic judgments. Crawford asks, “why should we demand the agreement of others when we judge something to be beautiful?” (Crawford 143). To this we may add the question, how can we make such a demand? Recognizing the importance of this question, Kant addresses the matter in § 40, prefacing his shift in focus around the notion of interest:

Supposing, now, that we could assume that the mere universal communicability of our feeling must of itself carry with it an interest for us (an assumption, however, which we are not entitled to draw as a conclusion from the character of a merely reflective judgment), we should then be in a position to explain how the feeling in the judgment of taste comes to be exacted from every one as a sort of duty (CJ 296).

Here, Kant implies that up until this point in the Critique, an adequate explanation for how aesthetic judgments can be effectively demanded of every one has not yet been given, while at the same time using the language of morality and practical reason in his suggestion as to what would, in fact, explain this connection.

“The model for [Kant’s] analysis,” Crawford notes, “is provided by the other types of judgment which are bound up with interests. The interest in the good-in-itself, the morally good, is derived from reason; it is thus an intellectual interest” (Crawford 143). Thus, interest in the morally good is necessary, and exacts itself as a duty, because the actual existence of the good must be implied in moral feeling. This much is derived by reason. Kant summarizes this distinction early in the third Critique as evidence to the fact that aesthetic judgment must be disinterested. He writes,

That is good which by means of reason commends itself by its mere concept. We call that good for something (useful) which only pleases as a means; but that which pleases on its own account we call good in itself. In both cases the concept of an end is implied, and consequently the relation of reason to (at least possible) willing, and thus a delight in the existence of an Object or action, i.e. some interest or other (CJ 207).

As Crawford notes, the good in itself is the “morally good,” and thus an interest in the existence of the good is necessary. In contrast, aesthetic judgment must be disinterested, as delight in the agreeable would amount to an interest in that which is merely good for something. Such an object could not be called “beautiful,” because the will is not “freely” judging it so, but is rather basing the judgment on a private feeling–an interest which requires the actual existence of the thing. However, though the judgment of the beautiful must itself be disinterested, Kant joins an indirect interest with judgment of the beautiful in nature in order to achieve the sense of duty exacted by the mandates of practical reason and morality.

It is nature, Kant claims, which “enable[s] us to take an immediate interest in the beautiful as such” (CJ 302). And, consistent with the above descriptions of interest, this means that one with such an intellectual, empirical interest in the beauty of nature “is not alone pleased with nature’s product in respect of its form, but is also pleased at its existence, and is so without any charm of sense having a share in the matter, or without his associating with it any end whatsoever” (CJ 299). One can have such an engaged interest in the beauty of nature without the charm of sense and without associating it with an end only because the judgment itself is originally disinterested. Here, we judge “without our judgment being founded on any interest, though here it produces one” (CJ 158). Interest follows from the judgment since the good soul, after seeing the beauty of nature and judging it without interest, cannot help but demand the existence of nature’s beauty. Hence, “the mind cannot reflect on the beauty of nature without at the same time finding its interest engaged” (CJ 299). “But,” Kant immediately adds, “this interest is akin to the moral. One, then, who takes such an interest in the beautiful of nature can only do so in so far as he has previously set his interest deep in the foundations of the morally good” (CJ 299). Kant makes this move quickly and proceeds directly to the conclusions which such a move entails. He offers no more substantial support for this argument within § 42.

“How is it that this immediate interest in natural beauty is an indication or symptom of moral interest?,” Crawford asks, rightfully adding, “Kant’s reasoning on this point in § 42.6-7 is somewhat obscure” (Crawford 148). Kant fails to adequately treat the relationship between the two, a relationship which requires much explication due to the apparently contradictory functions of each up to this point. Interest in the beauty of nature, Kant tells us, is “akin to the moral.” How is this so? As we have seen, “Moral feeling is, for Kant, the feeling of respect for law or the conformity to law” (Crawford 146). Though this moral feeling, like a properly aesthetic judgment, originally “satisfies independently of any interest, desire, or inclination of the agent,” its focus remains within the realm of legislation and general concepts, while aesthetic judgment involves neither (Crawford 146). Surely if the interest itself is “akin,” the motivation and the action taken through such an interest must be entirely different. “This is a tenuous link,” Crawford notes, “between the aesthetic and the moral, simply because this contemplation does not itself seem to be any firm indication of a morally good disposition” (Crawford 148). Moreover, reflection on the beautiful seems fundamentally different in kind from moral deliberation, the one relatively inactive and non-determinant, the other active, law-giving, and law-following.

Though his remarks in § 42 are insufficient and “a bit obscure,” Kant’s approach in this section is largely preparatory for his concluding remarks, in which he treats the problem more fully. As Crawford notes, the “complete transition between the moral and the aesthetic is not achieved until Kant advances his doctrine of the beautiful (both in art and in nature) as the symbol for morality” in § 59 of the Critique of Judgment (Crawford 146). Though Kant has repeatedly stressed the appeal to the sensus communis and the disinterestedness of aesthetic judgments as constitutive of subjective universal validity, in this final section, he places all of the validity of subjective universality in aesthetic judgments on their relation to morality. He writes, in § 59: “Beauty as the Symbol for Morality,”

Now, I say, the beautiful is the symbol of the morally good, and only in this light (a point of view natural to every one, and one which every one exacts from others as a duty) does it give us pleasure with an attendant claim to the agreement of every one else, whereupon the mind becomes conscious of a certain ennoblement and elevation above mere sensibility to pleasure from impressions of sense, and also appraises the worth of others on the score of a like maxim of their judgment (CJ 353, emphasis mine).

While Kant has had morality in mind throughout the third Critique, in the conclusion to his first part it comes right to the fore, given great significance as the end towards which the Critique is directed. Thus, we must now carefully attempt to clarify Kant’s ambiguous use of beauty as the symbol for morality if we are to fully understand the relationship of aesthetics to morality as Kant intends it.

In articulating this symbolic relationship, Kant “bring[s] out a few points of this analogy, while taking care, at the same time, not to let the points of difference escape us” (CJ 353). But these “points of difference,” brought out in only the first two of Kant’s four points, are considerably weakened beneath the weight and strength of the arguments ventured in the latter two points. In the first point, Kant reiterates his simplest claim, one which we have already studied at length: “The beautiful pleases immediately (but only in reflective intuition, not, like morality, in its concept)” (CJ 353-354). This point, of course, distinguishes between the types of interest involved in aesthetics and morality, the former being a produced interest, while the latter is always necessarily interested. Kant’s second point in this section seems to make a quite similar argument, identifying the same difference: “[the beautiful] pleases apart from all interest (pleasure in the morally good is no doubt necessarily bound up with an interest, but not with one of the kind that are antecedent to the judgment upon the delight, but with one that judgment itself for the first time calls into existence)” (CJ 354). In these first two points, Kant parenthetically differentiates between the types of interest involved in aesthetic and moral judgments, while at the same time showing the similarities which may still mark a symbolic relationship between the two. In his latter two points, these differences are not emphasized, as Kant builds the strength of the analogy, blurring the boundaries between the aesthetic and the moral and almost identifying the two rather than symbolizing the one with the other.

Kant argues, in his third point, “The freedom of the imagination (consequently of our faculty in respect of its sensibility) is, in estimating the beautiful, represented as in accord with the understanding’s conformity to law (in moral judgments the freedom of the will is thought as the harmony of the latter with itself according to universal laws of Reason)” (CJ 354). Here, Kant identifies the judgment made through aesthetic imagination with the moral judgment’s conformity to law. Practical reason “lays down the law,” as we have seen Arendt point out, and the will establishes the same law which it follows. How is aesthetic judgment anything like this? It neither creates a law nor follows one. Aesthetic judgment does not proceed through concepts. Kant’s fourth and final point addresses this difference, but brings the two together in their universality:

The subjective principle of the estimate of the beautiful is represented as universal, i.e. valid for every man, but as incognizable by means of any universal concept (the objective principle of morality is set forth as also universal, i.e. for all individuals, and, at the same time, for all actions of the same individual, and, besides, as cognizable by means of a universal concept (CJ 354).

Thus, Kant’s conclusion appears more than symbolical when he claims, as I have cited above, “For this reason the moral judgment not alone admits of definite constitutive principles, but is only possible by adopting these principles and their universality as the ground of its maxims”(CJ 354). But, however strong the claim and the apparently necessary connection, we must remember that Kant does mean beauty as a “symbol” for morality, and we must understand the strength of the claim within this context.

It is here, in answering his own question of “How, precisely, is beauty a symbol of the morally good?,” that Crawford seems to overstep the strictly symbolic relationship between beauty and morality (Crawford 156). Following Kant in understanding the universal aspect of aesthetic judgments, Crawford also recognizes “the principle underlying judgments of taste” as still “a subjective principle: it is simply the way in which our minds order the manifold of experience so as to make it intelligible to us” (Crawford 156). But from this correct summary, Crawford arrives at a conclusion which is not “simply” such an ordering of experience. In the same breath, Crawford adds, “Beauty is thus the symbol of the basis of morality because the experience of the beautiful is a result of ourselves (supersensibly) legislating a principle that determines how we experience the world” (Crawford 156, emphasis mine). How would aesthetic judgment legislate such a principle? By “a principle that determines how we experience the world,” does Crawford mean a concept which legislates what we consider to be beautiful? Kant specifically rejects the idea that a judgment concerning the beautiful creates a concept or a principle to follow concerning the beautiful. The statement, “this rose is beautiful,” does not legislate a principle, but merely judges the particular. While Crawford’s conclusion is consistent with Kant’s enigmatic claim, “we have reason for presuming the presence of at least the germ of a moral disposition in the case of a man to whom the beauty of nature is a matter of immediate interest,” a claim which we still must examine more closely, he does not adequately show how beauty is a symbol for morality; nor, therefore, does he effectively show how a transition from the aesthetic to the moral is justified or even possible (CJ 301).

Crawford’s desire to identify the aesthetic and the moral, by dissolving the boundaries which separate them, is understandable, however, as Kant’s apparent need for this connection makes him, at times, identify the two. But we must be careful not to make such an identification, for though Kant feels the need to connect the aesthetic to the moral in order to give a sense of duty and universality to aesthetic judgments, the two must be separate for the projects to hold. Aesthetic judgment cannot ultimately be law-driven, for then the imagination would not be free. This is why Kant uses the language of representation in his main points concerning beauty as the symbol for morality. The imagination’s judgment concerning the beautiful is merely “represented as in accord with the understanding’s conformity to law.” But, complicating matters even more, Kant is not clear as to which, either beauty or morality, is the founding term in their symbolic relationship. He argues that “only when sensibility is brought into harmony with moral feeling can genuine taste assume a definite unchangeable form,” implying that aesthetic judgment must be understood in terms of morality, while also making the case that “moral judgment . . . is only possible by adopting [aesthetic] principles and their universality as the ground for its maxims,” suggesting the very reverse (CJ 356,354). Crawford extends the former claim in his identification of aesthetic judgment with moral legislation. Accordingly, before we return to what Kant can actually mean by calling “beauty as the symbol for morality,” we must also briefly show the inadequacy of taking Kant at his word in the latter claim and grounding moral judgment solely in aesthetic sensibility.

Johnson, seeming to begin with Kant’s conclusion that taste “represents the imagination, even in its freedom, as amenable to a final determination for understanding,” argues that Kant’s moral philosophy requires his later aesthetic project in order to be complete. More specifically, he “want[s] to argue that, in spite of his repeated insistence on the purely rational nature of moral judgment, Kant recognized the need for imagination in order to apply moral rules to specific cases” (Johnson 265). But, since, “in his theory of morality proper,” such as is we find it in the Critique of Practical Reason and the Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, “Kant does not give an adequate account of how imagination operates,” Johnson suggests that “we must go outside his moral philosophy to the more fully developed view of imagination in the Critique of Judgment” (Johnson 265). However, drawing this connection does not serve a propaedeutic function, recognizing morality and taste in a symbolic relationship which will help us learn each by means of the other. Rather, Johnson, like Crawford, identifies the two as two faces of the same project. But, unlike Crawford, Johnson claims that morality must be understood as already founded upon an essential aspect of aesthetic judgment, not implying that judgment of the beautiful is subject to a moral law.

Johnson finds this missing aspect of morality in the faculty of imagination, described in the Critique of Judgment as essential to aesthetic judgment. However, Johnson is aware that Kant’s neglect of imagination in the Critique of Practical Reason is not an oversight. Kant specifically notes, in the second Critique, that imagination has no place in moral deliberation, claiming, “the moral law has no cognitive faculty other than the understanding (not the imagination) by means of which it can be applied to objects of nature, and what the understanding can put under an idea of reason is not a schema but a law” (CPR 69, emphasis mine). In fact, Johnson reiterates Kant’s crucial distinction, effectively summarizing,

Kant’s refusal to grant imagination any part in this process of typification is the result of his adherence to a strict dichotomy between understanding and imagination. Imagination, for him, is typically associated with the material, the subjective, . . . so he takes great pains not to let imagination enter into his pure moral philosophy” (Johnson 271).

Still, and against Kant’s own account, Johnson holds that imagination must be involved in moral deliberation. His reasoning on this point stems from the difficulty he finds in the particular application of the categorical imperative.

“What is involved,” Johnson asks, “in moving rationally from the formulation of a supreme moral principle to specifying particular imperatives as they apply to the messy and intricate circumstances of our lives?” (Johnson 266). In response to his own question, Johnson argues that the “extremely abstract and formal categorical imperative” cannot, in and of itself, “be brought to bear on particular cases” (Johnson 268). We have no way, Johnson claims, of rationally moving from such a general law to the particular and “messy” situations which require moral deliberation. We require imagination to mediate the understanding in our application of the categorical imperative. In this way, Johnson arrives at his “most controversial point,” namely, that “while this metaphorical process of moral reasoning is an act of practical reason, it is also an imaginative process,” which “is not rule-governed, for it is the process by which we imaginatively grasp the appropriateness of some rule and project it onto a particular situation” (Johnson 276). Thus, for Johnson, the imagination grants us the only means for deciding particular circumstances fall under the category of the general law. In this case, practical reason would not be purely rational, but would be founded upon the imaginative process of aesthetic, creative, reflective judgment.

But this move is as unsatisfying as it is unnecessary, for the categorical imperative, even as an “extremely abstract and formal” principle, is more a mandate for the will to give and follow laws of practical reason than it is a specific law to be followed in particular cases. “The rule of judgment under practical reason is this,” Kant again claims, “ask yourself whether, if the action you propose were to take place by a law of the nature of which you were yourself a part, you could indeed regard it as possible through your will” (CPR 69). There is nothing lacking in reason for the application of such a rule of moral judgment, for the categorical imperative is not a singular law which requires interpretation in particular cases. Rather, this moral imperative is present within particular cases and represents the will’s accordance with itself, which is indeed a purely rational enterprise. The will gives the law and follows the law within the same maxim, and imagination is not required to mediate the understanding. We are thus brought back to the necessary distinction between practical reason and aesthetic judgment. Though the two are indeed related, their relationship is not one of identity. We must now return, then, to the question of how beauty is the symbol for morality, showing their relationship while at the same time keeping the two faculties distinct.

Kant’s final word on the symbolic relationship of taste and morality, in the first part of the Critique of Judgment, will help us clear up this ambiguous connection:

taste is, in the ultimate analysis, a critical faculty that judges of the rendering of moral ideas in terms of sense (through the intervention of a certain analogy in our reflection on both); and it is this rendering also, and the increased sensibility, founded upon it, for the feeling which these ideas evoke (termed moral sense), that are the origin of that pleasure which taste declares valid for mankind in general and not merely for the private feeling of the individual. This makes it clear that the true propaedeutic for laying the foundations of taste is the development of moral ideas and the culture of the moral feeling (CJ 227).

The development of moral ideas cultivates a moral feeling in aesthetic judgments because of the analogy drawn between the two in the similar moral feeling. In his Theory and Practice essay, Kant tells us that “the will’s receptivity to [law] as an absolute compulsion is known as moral feeling” (TP 68, emphasis in original). This moral feeling appears in our judgments of taste because we feel something like this compulsion to law, without such a law being present. The likeness of the feeling teaches us what the universalizing of a judgment of the beautiful would entail, in that we treat it as something which we demand others to recognize. But how is such an analogical demand made? We have established that the demand cannot be the same, yet it remains to be shown how the feeling involved in the universal communicability of moral and aesthetic judgments are “akin.”

Here, we are given yet another hint in Arendt’s analysis of Kant’s third Critique, this time in her distinction between the “two mental operations in judgment” (Arendt 68). The first operation is “the operation of the imagination, in which one judges objects that are no longer present, that are removed from one’s immediate sense perception and therefore no longer affect one directly” (Arendt 68). Here, we take a disinterested, inactive delight in the beautiful, through the imagination. This first operation, therefore, has nothing to do with any moral feeling, as it remains completely subjective and no such compulsion is given. “Pleasure of this kind,” Kant writes, “since it enters into the mind through sense–our rôle, therefore, being a passive one–may be called the pleasure of enjoyment” (CJ 291-292). Such a pleasure is neither rational nor yet properly aesthetic. Accordingly, it is not capable of offering us a connection between the two. For the points which constitute their symbolic relationship, we must turn to the second operation of which Arendt speaks.

This first, imaginative operation, “prepares the object for ‘the operation of reflection.’ And this second operation–the operation of reflection,” Arendt tells us, “is the actual activity of judging something” (Arendt 68). In the operation of reflection, that is, judgment proper, we make the demand for the agreement of others concerning the beautiful, imputing a subjective universal validity to our judgment which is akin to a moral feeling. It must be something like “delight in an action on the score of its moral character,” which “is not a pleasure of enjoyment, but one of self-asserting activity and in this coming up to the idea of what it is meant to be. But this feeling, which is called the moral feeling, requires concepts, and is the presentation of a finality, not free, but according to law” (CJ 292). Here, though he notes the similarity between morality and judgment concerning the beautiful, Kant is careful to articulate the difference. Aesthetic judgment is free and does not require concepts, while moral action functions according to both concepts and law. But still the feeling remains similar, and we want to draw this connection in its universal communicability and the imputed ought of the statement.

Thus, in distinguishing aesthetic judgment, Kant clarifies, as I have cited above, “The pleasure in the beautiful is, on the other hand, neither a pleasure of enjoyment nor of an activity according to law, nor yet one of a rationalizing contemplation according to ideas, but rather one of mere reflection” (CJ 292). But the moral feeling remains, and is even necessary in our universalizing of the judgment. Thus, we can see how “one who judges with taste” experiences a sort of moral feeling which enables him to “impute the subjective finality, i.e. his delight in the Object, to every one else, and suppose his feeling universally communicable, and that, too, without the mediation of concepts” (CJ 293). Though this judgment is not a moral one, the feeling both required and evoked is that of moral feeling. Thus, morality provides a “propaedeutic” function in recognizing what may be universalized in the judgment of taste and does “explain how the feeling in the judgment of taste comes to be exacted from every one as a sort of duty” (CJ 296). We must resist the temptation to equate morality and aesthetic judgment, as we have seen the problems such an equation causes. But we must also recognize the similarities, noting how their symbolic relationship works in both directions, cultivating our aesthetic sensibilities by reference to moral feeling and grounding maxims of morality in aesthetic principles.


Arendt, Hannah. Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Crawford, Donald W. Kant’s Aesthetic Theory. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1974.

Johnson, Mark. “Imagination in Moral Judgment.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. Vol. XLVI, No. 2 (1985), 265-280.

Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of Judgement. Trans James Creed Merideth. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952.

Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of Practical Reason. Trans. Mary Gregor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals. Trans. H.J. Patton. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1956.

Kant, Immanuel. “On the Common Saying: ‘This May be True in Theory, but it does not Apply in Practice.'” Kant: Political Writings.